MLB and players 2020 season showdown comes from mistrust built in recent years

MLB and players 2020 season showdown comes from mistrust built in recent years

If the Major League Baseball season gets canceled this year because of the dispute between players and owners over salaries, it will be a nightmare optics scenario for both sides.

But make no mistake about who picked the fight and where the blame will lie, regardless of any high-minded, pandemic-framed morality judgments.

It will be on the owners, who turned nearly a generation of relative labor harmony into a climate of mistrust just in the past few years by leveraging collective bargaining gains into salary suppression during a time of record MLB revenues and franchise values.

RELATED: MLB, players discuss health issues while money remains hurdle for 2020 season

The resulting declines in average salaries in 2018 and 2019, after shockingly slow free agent markets, marked only the second and third years of decline in more than 50 years of union record keeping that didn’t involve shortened seasons or documented collusion — the first time in back-to-back seasons under any circumstances.

And whether you choose to attribute that to collusive conduct by teams or better evaluation analytics — former Cubs pitcher Brad Brach said last spring that multiple teams cited “algorithms” that winter when making identical offers — the impact was as clear.

A generation of players who had never experienced league-level labor strife — including some players who were born after the last labor stoppage — suddenly awoke to the harsher realities of union-management relations their predecessors lived, most recently in 1994-95.

“I was 2 years old. I didn’t comprehend everything,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said when he consequently chose to step into a union leadership role on the team in 2018.

To be clear, the union has only itself to blame for signing a bad deal during the last round of CBA talks.

But the subsequent effects of “algorithms” and incentivized tanking that led to a squeeze on players during the sport’s good times awoke a sleeping giant of a union that already was gearing up for a fight over the 2022 CBA.

Fast-forward to this moment of national crisis.

Now the owners want a revenue-sharing plan (read: salary cap) to mitigate their losses during the bad times as they try to salvage a 2020 season during a pandemic?

That’s a significant context to remember in any rush to criticize players for not quickly accepting ownership’s terms for a restart and to express “disappointment” in them, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker did Tuesday — before walking his comments back on Wednesday.

And this is the even more significant context: Players and other essential, on-the-ground personnel will be asked to bear the lion’s share of health risks of going back to work in various parts of the country. Owners and top executives, in theory, might not be needed to leave their homes during an entire, abbreviated season.

It’s far from certain — and some experts say unlikely — that MLB will have even enough testing capacity to assure the level of safety protocol originally suggested as necessary to start the season.

And short of that, players such as Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller have said publicly, “We’re wasting our breath with everything else.”

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, whose wife has a pre-existing condition that makes her more vulnerable to potential effects of COVID-19, outlined many of the questions and concerns for players in a lengthy Twitter thread this week.

Several players are known to have their own underlying risk conditions, along with some managers, coaches and support staff.

Even with quarantine-like conditions and limited travel, what additional risks are presented through contact with hotel staff, airline crews, bus drivers and others allowed into and near the protective bubble?

So what is the equitable division of financial risk?

Consider, too, that team ownership is a long-term, exceptionally lucrative business proposition. The Cubs’ franchise value rose to more than $3 billion by last season since the Ricketts family’s $846 million purchase in 2009. Jerry Reinsdorf’s group bought the White Sox for $19 million in 1981, and Forbes estimated its value early this year at $1.65 billion.

Players, on the other hand, have short careers, with limited stretches within those careers to capitalize on arbitration and free-agent opportunities. And relatively few of those become established enough to leverage the system at all.

And, finally, this: MLB and the players struck an agreement in March over prorated salaries for a shortened 2020 season, and MLB is now suggesting an adjustment to terms based on projected losses because of the likelihood fans won’t be allowed in stadiums.

RELATED: Ian Happ: MLB players ‘have already agreed to a pay cut’ for 2020 season

The union’s position is that the March deal accounted for all contingencies; the owners point to a disputed clause in a 20-page document suggesting additional negotiations for the possibility of lost attendance — which was the widely held public assumption at the time, based on statements from health experts and public officials.

If that clause is to be interpreted as the owners intend now, then why wasn’t it discussed with unimpeachable clarity, transparency and in as much detail as the prorated numbers, in March?

Look, baseball already had an image problem and popularity issue with anybody under 50 in this country, and nothing positive for the game’s image can come from a salary dispute during a pandemic that has killed more than 80,000 Americans and devastated whole sectors of the economy.

Given the climate of mistrust created in just the last few years, MLB’s best play for both short-term goodwill and long-term best outcomes might be to skip the revenue-sharing idea — which, in any case is a trust-me request considering MLB doesn’t open its books to the players.

Otherwise, Pritzker might want to save his “disappointment” for his fellow billionaires running baseball.

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Cubs' Adbert Alzolay complains about South Bend conditions but comments misleading


Cubs' Adbert Alzolay complains about South Bend conditions but comments misleading

Cubs right-hander Adbert Alzolay made waves on Thursday tweeting (now deleted) about the conditions for players at the club’s alternate training site, hosted at the South Bend Cubs facility.

Alzolay and the 10 other players in South Bend are eligible for this season but will remain inactive unless need arises on the big league roster. He tweeted the players make $18 a day — or $10, when accounting for “dues” the players owe, while possibly tipping clubhouse attendants.

Whether it was a miscommunication by someone with Alzolay, the actual amount the players get is $25 and no dues are deducted from that. The option to tip clubhouse attendants is up to players individually. Through Summer Camp, the 11 Cubs in South Bend will also receive two packaged meals a day at the complex.

Once the regular season starts (July 23, per MLB’s arrangement for the 60-game campaign), the alternate site Cubs will receive $50 a day in meal money, instead of what was originally proposed because the Cubs proposed higher daily meal money.

Players will receive full salaries beginning July 23, per MLB’s agreement, and minor leaguers are being paid in the meantime. Six of the 11 Cubs in South Bend are not on the 40-man roster, and they will continue receiving $400 a week. Those on the 40-man (including Alzolay) received advanced salaries, per MLB’s agreement with the MLBPA in March.

Alzolay received $30,000 from that agreement.

Additional important context is the South Bend facility is one of the best in minor league baseball — with housing for the players nearby. The players are residing at new apartments that opened in December right outside the ballpark. They aren’t being charged for those apartments through Summer Camp, and the Cubs will subsidize many of the players in South Bend once the regular season starts. 

MORE: Where Cubs could find position of strength in 2020: South Bend

Alzolay later tweeted an update on the matter.

In wake of José Quintana’s thumb injury, general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday the Cubs haven’t decided if Alzolay will join the Wrigley Field training group.


Why it matters that the Cubs bullpen is 'deeper' than David Ross expected

Why it matters that the Cubs bullpen is 'deeper' than David Ross expected

The Cubs pitching staff is staring at a block of 17 straight games to start the season. After just three weeks of Summer Camp.  

“There’s a reason why Spring Training’s so long,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Because we want to stretch it out, make sure everybody’s healthy. So, outside of the virus factor, there’s a risk-factor of injury as well.”

Expecting starting pitchers to consistently throw seven innings at the beginning of the season isn’t realistic, so pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has built in a cushion. While most Cubs starters are upping their workloads to three-plus innings this week, some middle relievers are stretching to multiple innings as well.

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Late this week, Hottovy said he expects Rex Brothers, Dan Winkler, Casey Sadler, Duane Underwood Jr. and James Norwood to throw two innings in simulated games.

“As much as it is important to get these guys going multiple innings,” Hottovy said. “It’s also important to get them the volume they need, that you would see during a regular season. So throwing a two or three inning stint and having three or four days off, it may help us in one game, but over the course of the season … we’re going to need guys to be able to bounce back.”

Those who aren’t expected to throw multiple innings will, for the most part, still work up to a batter or two over one inning.

Kyle Ryan, who was delayed by what Ross called “protocol technicalities,” is in that category. He arrived in Chicago Wednesday night, according to Ross. Ryan was scheduled to be tested for COVID-19 along with the rest of the team Thursday. He will be quarantined until the Cubs receive his tests results, as long as they come back negative.

But Hottovy still believes there’s a chance Ryan could be ready to pitch in time for opening day in two weeks.

“We still have to get our eyes on him,” Hottovy said. “I feel like there is because of the work that he’s done and what he’s had access to back home.”

Either way, the Cubs hope to avoid having him pitch in back to back games early in the season.

“I don’t think anybody,” Hottovy said, “no matter what work you’ve done, is going to be ready to go back-to-backs at least consistently and definitely not those three days in a row.”

Not even closer Craig Kimbrel. Hottovy anticipates several of those pitchers will need to fill late-inning roles due to the compact 60-game schedule.

The Cubs starting rotation may be lacking in depth, even more than the Cubs originally expected after southpaw Jose Quintana lacerated his left thumb while washing dishes. But even with swingman Alec Mills expected to join the starting rotation, Ross has been pleasantly surprised with the overhauled Cubs bullpen.

“It’s definitely deeper than I had in my mind going into it,” Ross said. “These guys have really taken it upon themselves to be in tip-top shape.”